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How to provide the kind of comfort that fortifies

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. 2 Corinthians 1:3-4 

Paul uses the word ‘comfort’ throughout his letters to describe the work of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit, and to instruct the saints in how they should live. But listening to a pastor speak last summer, I was provoked when reading ‘comfort’ to understand it as less sofa-ology and more the fortifying work of God. 

A picture of true comfort

As he spoke, I was reminded of my first encounter with a dietician. Our son, who I considered to be a fussy eater (with some sensory issues around food for sure), was in fact seriously underweight. While other children begged for ice cream, Zeke would have to be persuaded to finish a few forkfuls of noodles or nibble a dry cracker. His autistic desire for sameness (and blandness) meant a diet that revolved mainly around toast. 

And so, at six years old, the dietician revealed that he had fallen off the bottom of the growth chart. Zeke’s immunity, resilience, and mood were all being affected by the fact that he was not being fortified (if you will) in his inner being. That same day she prescribed him with high-calorie fortified drinks which he drinks to this day, appropriately named ‘Fortini.’ 

Over the past four years Zeke has increased in strength, packed on muscle, has a promoted appetite, and has increased in vitamin D and iron absorption that has transformed his pallor and skin. Last autumn our previously frail little boy strode out to the sound of cheering fans as a Premier League mascot. The boy whose arms kept breaking now has such a strong kick that we have had to impose a strict 12-yard rule for his own mother’s safety in goal. 

The fortifying work of true comfort girds us with strength, consoles us with powerful eternal realities, and leaves us resilient, built up in our inner being—as individuals and communities—and emboldened to keep the faith.

He’s not alone. A friend who fled Syria with her severely disabled (and underweight) daughter has seen a tube-feed diet strengthen not only her limbs and muscles but also improve eyesight, hearing, and reaction times. She has not only doubled her body weight but can now communicate using eye-gaze technology. Fortification (or comfort) produces a multiplication of gifts and benefits for the whole body. 

Understanding comfort

When reading in Scripture about ‘comfort’—in Latin cum fortis, or “with great strength”—we would do well to understand the original meaning of the word, travelling back to a time that precedes the use of this word to brand ultra-cushioned toilet tissue or (in the U.K.) sensitive fabric conditioner. 

The original meaning of ‘comfort’ was anything but sappy. Indeed the famous Bayeux tapestry, which tells the story of the Battle of Hastings, depicts one Bishop Odo rallying and urging the troops forward, as he rides behind them waving a club. Underneath are the timeless words: “The bishop comforts the troops.” 

Whilst the club-wielding kind of comfort depicted here may not be quite what Paul had in mind, it is fair to guess that comfort as William Tyndale would have understood it when translating the Bible is a more powerful and substantial term than we read now with 21st-century eyes. 

The fortifying work of true comfort girds us with strength, consoles us with powerful eternal realities, and leaves us resilient, built up in our inner being—as individuals and communities—and emboldened to keep the faith. 

In our current context of isolation and loss, with visual reminders of disease, brutality, racism, and other ills all around us, words of comfort more than ever need to mean more than just tea and sympathy. There is a time for godly lament (individual and corporate), and, in time, lament can be met with words to one another: words that fortify our trust in a God of goodness and justice and give courage for the role he has given us in seeking that justice, because words of true comfort ultimately breed strength and boldness rather than apathy. 

The challenge in our church communities is to feed ourselves, and those around us, with words of true comfort, because he has laid out a feast of rich food which builds us up, strengthens us, and stirs an appetite in us for more of him. 

When we comfort others—which is the point of what Paul is saying in 2 Corinthians—we do sometimes offer sofas, and tissues, and a shoulder to cry on. But in time, we do even better to point them to a piled-high table, a very strong fortress, and a very good fortify-er: our true Comforter. 

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